Reclamation Day. Oh, what a glorious moment it should have been when the hand-picked survivors of Vault 76 ventured out to make a post-nuclear war America great again. But when you step out with your custom-created character and feel the atomic breeze of Appalachia, basking in a beautiful color medley of autumn, there’s no one to greet you. No grand constructs, no living neighborhoods, nothing the first settlers were supposed to set up. In fact, there’s no life whatsoever apart from irradiated animals, hostile mutants and what seems like scorched, mindless husks of men, attacking you on sight. The only sign of the past are dead bodies of previous settlers, working computer terminals, and audio logs that suggest something went gravely wrong.
Fallout games never had that eerie last man in the world feeling before. Fallout 76 really makes you The Omega Man (or Woman) as you wander around the ghost world of abandoned suburbs, factories, gas stops, pubs and homes, along cracking highways and through haunting forests. The atmosphere of rusty Americana is palpable, reminding of a life before a nuclear holocaust, now turned into a harrowing decadence. Before long, though, you begin to miss the makings of the series; the dialogue with NPCs, all those crazy people and factions you bumped into during your travels through several generations of wastelands.
Without a proper story, context and people in Fallout 76, everything you do, from quests you pick up from computer terminals to taking care of yourself, is only vaguely motivated. At first, it seems like a noble premise; as Fallout 76 is the first online game in the series, players create their own stories in the world. The vast map of West Virginia (four times larger than in Fallout 4) is intentionally made to feel like a ghost town with only 25 players in an instanced world and unless you have friends to play with, it can take hours (or days even) to see someone else. However, unlike most other online games, Fallout 76 is perfectly soloable because there is nothing that requires a team effort to overcome. Often, it’s encouraged to go on your own, don’t wait for others to finish reading environmental texts, manipulating quest objects, hassling with inventories, and healing themselves. You can be a master of your own time, even if you feel a bit miserable about it.
Because Fallout 76 makes compromises to cater to soloists and groups, it feels more like a sketch of game that doesn’t know what it wants to achieve. And when nothing really works as it should (there’s no system in the game without a bug in it), the premise starts reeking. Sure, the game is meant as a prequel to the series that goes for an excuse for its barren world which hasn’t yet developed into what we have grown to know from the previous games. But what if that’s all it is? Just an excuse? As if Bethesda has skimped on money and resources to throw in a framework of Fallout 4 with no proper scripted content to go with it.
Having audio records instead of full conversations with NPCs must have saved in voice actors, directors, drama coaches and sound engineers. When most of the assets, too, are recycled from Fallout 4, from Abraxo Cleaner packages and Red Rocket gas stations to character models, you can’t help but question motives behind such a penny-pinching. Still, you can make money with it, I can hear Bethesda executives chiming. Atoms, that are separate from the in-game currency and rewarded from completing challenges and quests, can be used to buy vanity items, like outfits and emotes. Some of the purchases, though, such as Nuka-Cola stashes for your personal C.A.M.P, are beneficial for real and close in on the uglier side of micro transactions as Atoms can be bought with real money.
Money milking schemes aside, what is it like to survive in the post-apocalyptic West Virginia? Pretty much the same lonely routine every day, all day. You don’t see anyone for days and you’re always thirsty and hungry. It’s exaggerated how fast the need to nourish yourself kicks in. You can’t get far in your ventures if you don’t frequently stop to drink and eat – or hunt for and prepare something that’s drinkable and edible. Malnutrition detracts from action points that are used for V.A.T.S and physical activities such as running and jumping. Here, unlike in previous Fallout games, V.A.T.S doesn’t slow down time to target individual body parts of enemies. Instead, it works as an auto-aim you want to resort to as often as possible as some enemies are so nippy - and the overall action is so ropey - that it’s hard aiming them down with the sights alone.
One thing you learn quickly is that water and wood are the most important resources you can gather. Often, any grand plan (like venturing into far north after spending time in the south) begins with searching for water and wood. Unless you don’t want diseases along the way, the water must be first boiled and to do that you have to set up a cooking station that needs wood to heat up. You can either gather wood from logs in the forest or turn items like brooms, pencils, and alphabet blocks into wood scraps. It’s time to rejoice when you find a water source (like a working tap in a rundown pub) you can return to most of the time. Food is also important, and apart from collecting meat from critters and animals you kill, you can find canned dog food, chips and anything that’s at least somehow edible. Luckily, the world is full or recipes left behind for you to pick up and learn to make passable meals out of revolting ingredients.
You should make it a point to collect everything (as much as your carry limit allows), no matter how useless it might appear, like teddy bears and broken bed lamps. All random items can be salvaged into materials used to craft anything from armor pieces to weapons, and to build up a personal C.A.M.P, a portable home base. It can be moved around for a small fee as you travel around Appalachia, and you can return to it for no cost at the end of the playing session. Fast travel between discovered places costs caps, though, so you really want to travel by shanks’ mare as much as you can. Having an inventory that can store dozen weapons, sacks of junk and whatnot, and the C.A.M.P that you can build up to a fortress but can magically move around feels funny in the game where other systems are at least semi-realistic.
There are some welcome features when compared to other online role-playing games. Quests have no artificial level requirements and you happen on them by a natural progression. Also, Fallout 76 is not loot dependent as equipment don’t have item levels. You can pretty much make it through with items you picked up early on (as long as you repair and mod them along the way, that is). And what’s really important for vanity reasons is that armor pieces are hidden under clothing. No more ugly pipes, spikes and plates sticking out of your figure! The ability-defining perks are now cards that can be stacked under their respective attributes. They can be changed at will to change the build on the fly to face different situations.
It’s a shame that Fallout 76 tries its best to be as uncomfortable as possible. Bethesda games are notorious for their bugs and players are left to act as game testers to find and report them. Even then, it can take ages for bugs to be fixed – if ever. Skyrim Special Edition still has bugs that date back to the game’s original release seven years ago! Fallout 76 is no exception there. Even if you have full AP points and full clips of ammo, V.A.T.S activates when it feels like to, and you can miss if the enemy is too close – even if you have a gun barrel literally in its mouth. When you die, your precious junk items are left behind rather unglamorously in a brown paper bag to be picked up when you respawn at a nearby location (or get resurrected by other players) and run back to it. Often, though, the bag can get wedged in a debris or other environmental objects where it can’t be collected from.
The player character and enemies alike can get stuck in an environment, and sometimes they just glide around with no animation to move them. Even though aesthetically Fallout 76 is beautiful, with some striking environmental effects and lighting to enhance its mirthless but detailed world, technically it’s nothing to write home about. Depth of field is intrusive and the dynamic scaling blurs the action all too often into a mess. While the point of view moves at a brisk pace, it skips frames doing so. It’s no wonder, really, as Bethesda’s game engine is derived from an ancient code, only patched up with bubblegum and Scotch tape to keep up with the times.
Fallout 76 seems to follow a trend of slow gaming that is all the rage. No one can claim that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a fast-paced game as it takes things in a pace like afternoon activities in a retirement home. This is a similar experience. In a playing session of hour or so, you won’t necessarily achieve anything remarkable. You head towards a location where the quest marker leads to (all quests are very linear in their nature), loot a few houses along the way and fend off random scorched, ghouls, super mutants and animals. Once in a while, you’ll bump into a more terrifying monster of such high a level that you have to simply run away, unless you’re grouped with able players or wear a power armor you can build up from pieces left around. Sometimes it feels really weird when you encounter a creature that seems it was ripped from 50’s B-movie, like an alien in a space suit wearing a glowing helmet, or a winged beast that would be more home in Skyrim (another recycled asset?). What the hell went wrong in this world?
Still, it's up to player stories to fill up the void left by having no script as such to go by. You'll never know where your travels will take you to. Many, normally mundane locales, are made exotic by the fact they're long abandoned, giving them fascinating patina and leaving you to imagine the life there once was. It's how you end up in places and what you fought with while getting there, be it monsters, ungainly controls or bugs, that might be worth a tale - or a joke, for that matter. Events are meant to bring the community together, like defending a location against enemy waves, but often they turn into one big hassle as everyone fumbles around in their own account - if anyone even bothers to show up. Nevertheless, all that you do counts towards your character's own story. As you can't resort to saved games, victories and losses alike are irreversible.
It’s small moments and triumphs that make your time in post-nuclear West Virginia seem like worthwhile, but when there’s no bigger picture - a meaningful context to tie all menial tasks into - everything feels ultimately futile. The things to do are limited and more so, poorly motivated. You have a beautiful but an empty world to romp through and when you have repeated the same things for hours, following purposeless quest lines dictated by audio logs, looting deserted buildings and fighting monsters, you begin to feel like an idiot. Why am I even bothering? Besides, I can’t fully enjoy my time as a small voice in back of my head whispers about those dubious motives I dissected earlier.
On one hand, I’m really invested in making Frankie (my survivor I put together in middle of a night during the first B.E.T.A session) survive, build up her home and eventually find some meaning to her life but again, what point there is to it? After all, nothing you do amounts to anything substantial. Also, a lackluster technical performance, numerous bugs and some exaggerated systems pose more of a challenge than the harsh, post-apocalyptic world the game so credibly depicts.
Fallout 76 is a confusing experience, a discord of half-baked ideas and false premises but also some genuinely smart gameplay mechanics that allow solo players and groups alike adventure in equal terms. I want to desperately love it more but as it stands now, the game makes it pretty tough. Still, I will have my Frankie keep on going, no matter how stubborn that might be in the long run.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.